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Perched on Tish Gailmard's gloved fist, Oli Kai the crow coos and flaps his wings, exposing a series of white scars beneath his black feathers. As a result of his injury, the origin of which is unknown, Oli Kai can no longer survive in the wild. He is lucky to have found his way to Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center, where he will spend the rest of his life as an education animal, acting as an ambassador for his species, says Gailmard, the center's director of wildlife.
Most of the nature center's education birds come from around Tennessee and Georgia, but Oli Kai is not most birds. He came from Santa Barbara, California. But the story of how he got to Chattanooga is not just his story, but one of a community coming together, Gailmard says.
Oli Kai's Story
When Gailmard heard there was a non-releasable crow in California that needed a permanent home, her wheels started to spin. "How do I get that crow here, and for free?" she wondered.
For help, she turned to her friend James Howard, a talk show host for local radio station 92.3 FM and, conveniently, a private pilot. One morning when Gailmard joined Howard on his program, she shared her conundrum.
"Literally that moment, he sent a text to Taylor Newman at Crystal Air Inc.," Gailmard says, referencing the local charter flight service Newman heads as director of operations.
A week and a half later, Howard called her and said, "We can do it," and on June 1, Gailmard met Howard, Newman and Oli Kai at Wilson Air Center in Chattanooga.
"These guys took time off work. They gave us a plane and gas and made this happen," Gailmard says. "James is a community icon; Crystal Air serves the community; and [Reflection Riding] is here to serve the community too. This is just such a cool story."
According to one list published by the National Wildlife Federation, the crow is ranked the fifth-smartest animal in the world, not including humans.
Research has shown the crow to excel at facial recognition and communication. One study had a set of volunteers don a Dick Cheney mask and researchers don a caveman mask. Those wearing the caveman masks trapped and banded seven crows on a university campus in Seattle. Those in the Cheney masks left the birds alone.
Over the next few months, they continued to walk the campus in their masks. This time, both groups ignored the crows.
But the crows did not ignore them — at least not those donning the caveman masks, who were dive-bombed and scolded by the birds. In one case, a caveman-masked researcher reported being harassed by 47 of the 53 crows encountered during one walk, indicating that not only did the crows recognize the “threatening” mask, but the seven crows who had originally been trapped had communicated this threat to their flock.
Meet Oli Kai
While Gailmard does not know Oli Kai's exact age, she can tell the bird is mature. The average lifespan of a wild crow is 7-8 years. Young crows have blue eyes and pink mouths, while adults (like Oli Kai) have black eyes and black mouths.
But that doesn't prevent Oli Kai from acting like a baby, Gailmard says. He often gapes and squawks loudly at her, which, in the wild, is how a nestling tells its parents "Feed me! Feed me!" Gailmard says.
Sex: Male — maybe.
It is virtually impossible to determine the sex of a crow without a DNA test. Unlike some other bird species, male and female crows show little difference in size. Oli Kai's gender was assigned to him, for reasons unknown, by the original wildlife rehabilitator in California. However, it is just as likely that he is a she.
Likes: Human interaction.
Wild crows are social animals and live in large, extended family groups, which often include parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins. Gailmard says that whenever Oli Kai hears her talking or laughing with others, he starts to call. "I think he's just saying, 'Hey, don't forget I'm over here, too!'" Gailmard says.
Dislikes: Anything new.
Crows are neophobic, meaning they fear new objects — including foreign foods. Reflection Riding's crow diet is comprised of scrambled eggs, veggies, blueberries, cantaloupe and cherries, which Gailmard thinks Oli Kai had never tried. "I came in this morning and found cherries on the floor. I think he probably kicked it out of his bowl," Gailmard says.
To learn more about crows, visit Oli Kai at Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center, where he shares his outdoor enclosure with Mischief the crow.